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Return, Reload, Repeat: Predictions for all the drama ahead for the 2014-15 NBA Season

Hoopistani
FEATURED COLUMNIST
2.29K   //    28 Oct 2014, 16:43 IST
The NBA season kicks off tonight

A fresh start

In many ways, there is no better day then Opening Night for an NBA season. For one day, everyone is equal. Every team – whether it’s the San Antonio Spurs or the Philadelphia 76ers – will start with the same record: 0-0 and LeBron James will be as close to an MVP award as Hasheem Thabeet. All slates are clean and all the canvases are empty. Starting tomorrow, every team and every player will get a chance to paint in their own destinies.

While every offseason gives NBA teams a chance to reload their system and start afresh, the movement and changes over this summer have been particularly exciting. LeBron James will return to Cleveland to join Kyrie Irving and have Kevin Love to join him there. Derrick Rose returns healthy to the Bulls and welcomes Pau Gasol and other important new pieces. Kobe Bryant, Al Horford, and others brush off their injuries to return back in action. The reigning MVP Kevin Durant got hurt, leaving the team in Russell Westbrook’s hands until KD’s return. Paul Pierce went to Washington, Luol Deng to Miami, Lance Stephenson to Charlotte, Chandler Parsons to Dallas, Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer to the Lakers, and Isaiah Thomas to the Suns.

Meanwhile, a host of exciting new rookies, led by Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, the returning Nerlens Noel, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon, Doug McDermott, and the injured Joel Embiid have added a remarkable boost of great new talent across the league. At the helm, there will be nine teams with new Head Coaches calling the shots. And a handful of young players will be waiting on the wings ready to become the league’s next big stars.

But once we look past the fog of change, refreshed outlooks, and optimism, what do we see? Here are my predictions for the 2014-15 NBA season, where I predict that – after the reloading and the returns – the final winner will be a repeat performance.

Season outlook

The biggest story won’t be individual players or teams; it’ll be the continuing reminder of the vast gulf of talent between the two conferences. There will be several loaded teams who will stand way outside the playoff picture only because they play in the tougher Western Conference. Meanwhile, out East, several below-average teams will have a chance to sneak in to the post-season purely on the basis of poorer regular competition.

There will be no bigger stage than Cleveland this season, where LeBron James returns after four trips to the NBA Finals with the Miami Heat. LeBron will join by another superstar in Kevin Love and rising talent Kyrie Irving to make a formidable new Big Three which is going to eat up the East. Yet, the best record in the conference will belong to Thibodeau’s ever-reliable Bulls. The Bulls already have a deadly defensive squad, the reigning DPOY (Joakim Noah), a superb veteran post player (Gasol) a perimeter defensive force (Jimmy Butler), new shooting talents (Mirotic and McDermott) and a yearly 6th man of the year contender (Taj Gibson). The return of Derrick Rose – even if he plays at 60-70 percent of his MVP level – will boost this team offensively and shoot them to the top of the East.

After the top two, the East will be closely contested between the likes of the Wizards, Raptors, Heat, and Hawks. The Hornets and Nets should round up the Eastern Conference playoff spots, while the Knicks and the Pistons will miss out after a close race. Indiana will fall drastically after losing George to injury and Stephenson to the Hornets. Rumours will swirl around a potential Rondo trade all season, and the 76ers will be abysmal.

Out West, expect Russell Westbrook to go gangbusters while keeping the Thunder afloat in the Western Conference for the first two months, before Kevin Durant will return to help the team rekindle its elite status. The Spurs are another year older and will probably be a tad bit slower than usual this season. This opens up the space for the Clippers to use the talents of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to shoot up to the top of the West.

Between the crowded second-tier contenders like Warriors, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Rockets, Suns, and Mavericks, it will be yet another memorable battle out West. Meanwhile, teams with some interesting talent like the Pelicans, Lakers, Kings, or Timberwolves will be left cursing Geography for placing them in the tougher conference.

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End-of-season standings

East

1. Chicago Bulls

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

3. Washington Wizards

4. Miami Heat

5. Toronto Raptors

6. Atlanta Hawks

7. Charlotte Hornets

8. Brooklyn Nets

9. New York Knicks

10. Detroit Pistons

11. Indiana Pacers

12. Milwaukee Bucks

13. Orlando Magic

14. Boston Celtics

15. Philadelphia 76ers

West

1. Los Angeles Clippers

2. San Antonio Spurs

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

4. Golden State Warriors

5. Portland Trailblazers

6. Memphis Grizzlies

7. Houston Rockets

8. Phoenix Suns

9. Dallas Mavericks

10. New Orleans Pelicans

11. Minnesota Timberwolves

12. Sacramento Kings

13. Los Angeles Lakers

14. Denver Nuggets

15. Utah Jazz

Awards

MVP: With Kevin Durant set to miss a good chunk of the year, Anthony Davis stuck in a bad team in a tough conference, and the likes of Blake Griffin and Carmelo Anthony being good but just not good enough, the door is open again for LeBron James to win a fifth MVP award this season. LeBron’s return to Cleveland will turn a lottery team into a genuine contender, and even as he takes his foot off the accelerator more than ever this season, he’ll still put up his usual array of eye-popping statistics to claim this award.

Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich won’t win it, not because he won’t be great, but because voters will choose to reward someone else for their greatness. That someone else, I predict, will be Doc Rivers, who will steady the ship for the Clippers post-Sterling fiasco and help the team have a record regular season.

Defensive Player of the Year: There will be more responsibility and pressure than ever for Serge Ibaka to deliver and carry the Thunder on the defensive end without their best player. At 25 and at the cusp of a breakout, I think Ibaka will do just that, and will be rewarded with a DPOY award. The usual suspects like Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, and Dwight Howard will be in the race, and expect youngsters like Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Jimmy Butler to get DPOY votes as well.  

Rookie of the Year: I expect Jabari Parker to come in and start averaging over 20 points per game for the Bucks from Day One. Parker is the most NBA-ready rookie of this loaded class and should be a clear favourite for the ROY award. Nerlens Noel should put up a fight with some big numbers out for the tanking 76ers. Andrew Wiggins will show flashes of his potential, and Marcus Smart – especially if Rondo gets traded – will get a chance to shine for a losing team, too.

Most Improved Player: My favourite category, especially because it’s always the most unpredictable and open to different interpretations. Many players will improve in many different ways, with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Andre Drummond, Jonas Valanciunas, Bradley Beal, and Ricky Rubio taking the biggest steps forward. But I think this award will be given to reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who will build on his championship-winning confidence to take his game to greater heights this season and become the centerpiece for the Spurs on both ends of the floor.

6th Man of the Year: Phoenix are in love with their small guys, and a glut of point guards featuring Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, and Tyler Ennis will make this the speediest team in the league. I believe Thomas will fit perfectly in the system and thrive off the bench to become the league’s best substitute player. As usual, the other top candidates for this award will be Jamal Crawford, Manu Ginobili, and Taj Gibson.

All NBA First Team LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul.

Playoffs

East: While Chicago and Cleveland will start as favourites, I expect Miami to switch into another gear because of their veteran guile, experience, and head coaching in the post-season. No upsets as the Cavaliers, Bulls, Heat, and Wizards move into the second round, and then, LeBron James faces the Bulls in the Conference Finals. It’s at this point where I feel that Chicago’s system – especially on the defensive end – will outplay the Cavs, who have one too many inexperienced players big minutes this season. Chicago Bulls to win the East.

West: The Wild Wild West will remain wild as ever in the postseason. Expect another memorable first two rounds, as the Spurs and the Clippers will emerge as the last two teams standing in the conference. Despite having home-court advantage, I think Los Angeles will be outwitted by the San Antonio Spurs, who will now make their third  consecutive Finals appearance.

Finals: Bulls vs. Spurs for the championship. Rose, Noah, Gasol, and crew will give the Spurs the types of challenges – particularly with their team defense – that San Antonio wouldn’t have faced in the West. But I expect the party to keep going for a repeat title: the San Antonio Spurs will once again break free like they did in the 2014 Finals to play beautiful, unselfish basketball, and Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and co. will finish one more season at the top as NBA champions.

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